Saturday 15 August ~
Are you all set for the start of best league in the world? You might not be fully prepared because La Liga doesn't begin for another three weeks. Meanwhile, the Premier League gets underway today. After two months of increasingly frenzied build-up, the excitement has proved almost too much for some. Such as the Sun's chief sports writer Steven Howard who has had the temerity to adapt the Book of Revelations in his latest column, according to which there are now Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse with a moody Welshman saddled up alongside the Big Four bosses.
The suggestion is that there has never been so much pressure placed on the managers of the top clubs, a theme that has picked up in several other pre-season previews. You know the drill: Man Utd won't score nearly as many goals without Cristiano Ronaldo, Alberto Aquilani is unlikely to be an adequate replacement for Xabi Alonso in Liverpool's midfield, Arsenal's central defenders aren't good enough for a title-chasing team, Chelsea have a new manager who will take time to adapt, as was the case with Big Phil who was turfed out after four months. The pressure that Mark Hughes will be under from the outset is illustrated by the fact that he is 5/2 favourite to be the first manager sacked.
Second in the betting is Paul Hart who doesn't yet know who he will be working for with Sulaiman al-Fahim's takeover of Portsmouth still to be completed. Dr al-Fahim might still be working for Manchester City, owned by his compatriots from Abu Dhabi, had he not bragged rather too incautiously about whom they intended to buy when they took charge at Eastlands a year ago. While City's owners subsequently failed to buy Kaka and more recently Samuel Eto'o, they have nonetheless spent £217 million, which has included bringing in players from their principal rivals for Champions League qualification, Arsenal, as well as Carlos Tevez from Man Utd.
"A lot of people want us to succeed and just as many want us to fail," said Hughes this week. In fact most supporters of teams outside the top four probably want City to do both. If they qualify for the Champions League this season, that will cause a big financial crisis for whichever team they displace – which would be greatly entertaining for fans of the teams currently cast as makeweights. Any lasting disruption for the big four might also create openings for other clubs.
City's owners will be gone if they don't get what they think they have paid for in a couple of years, after which the club might collapse under the weight of all the money they owe to players they have under contract. Although it's possible they will simply be passed on to another billionaire royal family who want to buy in to the global glamour of the Premier League. But by then the top four will also have Notts County to contend with.